The Omega Ensemble’s weekend concert Haydn and Mozart was a superb performance of high calibre which suggests that it might more aptly be renamed the ‘Alpha’ Ensemble.
It is moving from strength to strength as a flexibly sized group whose members vary depending on the program being performed, allowing them to present a diversity of works across many genres.
The first concert in their 2017 Master Series consisted of just five players in a chamber music program of music for strings and clarinet. It was notable for the superb musicianship of the individual players as well as their excellent sense of ensemble. This is not surprising given the calibre of the players. The clarinettist and Co-Artistic Director, David Rowden, features in all the OE programs and his expertise and musicality are well established. The leader of the strings was Natsuko Yoshimoto who played with great style and produced a beautiful sound from her Amati violin. The remaining string players are all exceptional soloists in their own right: Ike See, Neil Thompson and Paul Stender.
The concert opened with the string quartet by Debussy, an early work whose impressionistic sound world introduced a new direction for French chamber music. It is also a virtuoso work requiring four players who are outstanding individual soloists but who must also merge to produce Debussy’s characteristic blended sonorities. The second and fourth movement, in particular, require a wide range of string techniques and rhythmically complex coordination. The OE players proved themselves fully able to surmount these challenges. They even managed to recover from a most unwelcome interruption. Just as Ike See embarked on the hushed opening of the slow third movement, a mobile phone rang. Understandably, he stopped playing and waited until the interruption ceased. During the fraught silence that followed Natsuko Yoshimoto improvised a parody of the ring tone, cleverly breaking the tense atmosphere. The movement then restarted with some beautifully serene playing by Ike See and Neil Thompson and a full, rich cello sound from Paul Stender.
The OE does commendable work in commissioning new music, and this concert featured the premiere of a work by the young NZ/Australian composer Ben Hoadley, who has frequently played bassoon with the group. His quintet Broken Songs was written especially for this program and is scored for basset clarinet and strings. This was to make it a companion piece to the Mozart clarinet quintet which ended the concert.
Hoadley’s work consists of four brief pieces which he describes as providing tunes reminiscent of British folk melodies. All four are dominated by the clarinet and are mostly reflective and contemplative. In the first piece the wistful clarinet is accompanied by bird-like chirping from the strings. The pensive atmosphere of the second piece clearly derives from the folksong tradition and parts of it recall the Debussy quartet which opened the concert. The third piece suggests snippets of conversation passing back and forth, while the last piece introduces a greater sense of anxiety or foreboding, with agitated string tremolos. It ends with a recollection of the first piece, providing a sense of unity to the four pieces. The OE’s performance was committed and confident.
After interval, the program moved back in time to the classical heartland of the chamber music repertoire. Their playing in Haydn’s Lark quartet displayed impeccable ensemble and refined classical poise. Natsuko Yoshimoto led strongly but without undue domination of the texture, allowing the important inner parts to register well. The scampering last movement was an impressive display of virtuoso playing and coordination.
The concert ended with Mozart’s magical Clarinet Quintet with David Rowden conjuring up the darker, plangent tones of the basset clarinet. This frequently blended with Paul Stender’s beautifully warm cello sound, lending a golden glow to the playing that accompanied the decreasing afternoon light on the harbour – magnificently arrayed behind the performers, through the Utzon Room’s glass wall. There was fine playing throughout and, in particular, the variations in the final movement gave each of the performers an excellent opportunity to display outstanding playing. It was a most enjoyable reading of a marvellous work.
For the remainder of 2017 the OE has a very full schedule, including lunchtime and evening performances in the City Recital Hall, the Utzon Room and the NSW Art Gallery. This concert was completely sold out – even the standing room.